The Yerukulas of Stuartpuram are fighting a battle. And Venkat Rahul Ragala hopes to lead them in their struggle. For over a century, the tribe has been ostracised for its alleged involvement in dacoity and burglary as Stuartpuram, an hour away from Guntur in Andhra Pradesh, was labeled the ‘village of criminals’. Stuartpuram may finally shake off that tag.
On Saturday, the 20-year-old weightlifter won India’s fourth gold medal at the Commonwealth Games by lifting a total of 338 kg — 151 kg in snatch and 187 in clean and jerk. “We grew up hearing stories about dacoits from the village, stealing gold or whatever came their way,” Ragala says. “Now someone from the same village has won a gold. I hope Stuartpuram is known for this, instead of being called a land of criminals.”
In 1913, the British declared the Yerukulas as a criminal tribe and sent them to a reformatory colony, which they called Stuartpuram — named after a member of the Madras government who came up with the idea. The British left, but the name stayed. For decades after Independence, Stuartpuram battled poverty and low literacy.
The social stigma still exists, says Ragala. “There are so many issues that need to be addressed there, mainly related to caste and education. Maybe that is because proper attention wasn’t paid to the region until now,” says Ragala, who has a Bachelor’s degree in economics and is a ticket collector with the South Central Railway.
The ‘village of criminals’ is now producing policemen, a trend Ragala says emerged after the release of a Chiranjeevi movie, in which the superstar plays a policeman who reforms Stuartpuram’s hardened criminals. “The movie made the village famous and inspired several youngsters. It has a lot of policemen now,” he says.
Like most villagers, Ragala’s father Madhu has leased out a tiny farmland where they grow paddy. Madhu himself was a national champion in weightlifting and a kabaddi player. He introduced his son to the sport when he was 12 but Ragala’s journey to the medal, which took India’s tally to six, hasn’t been an easy one.
Four years ago, he suffered jaundice after drinking tap water at a railway station. It resulted in him losing 20 kg and kept him out of the sport for more than a year. “He had no energy and his muscles were weak. But he was a special talent, as he had shown by winning the Youth Olympics so we channeled all our resources to support him,” says Weightlifting Federation of India vice president Sahdev Yadav.
Ragala’s medal at the 2014 Youth Olympics, a silver, is the only time an Indian has managed a podium finish in weightlifting. He began competing again in 2016 and just when things started to fall in place, six months ago, Ragala was dealt another blow when his mother passed away. On Saturday, Ragala tied a thread with her ring around his forehead as a tribute. “I felt like giving up but my father motivated me to continue,” he says. “It feels worthwhile now.”
Ragala hopes his medal goes beyond sports. “My village is facing a huge perception problem. They are fighting to regain their dignity. I hope this medal is helpful in achieving that,” he says.